‘Listen first, talk later’: respectful engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

Letitia Hope, Ray Griggs and Justine O'Brien in conversation

Letitia Hope, Ray Griggs AO CSC, and Justine O’Brien SCMP in conversation.

Ray Griggs AO CSC, National Indigenous Australians Agency CEO, Letitia Hope, National Indigenous Australians Agency Deputy CEO, and Justine O’Brien SCMP, IABC Canberra President, were interviewed recently for the Work with Purpose podcast by David Pembroke, contentgroup Founder and CEO.

The focus of their conversation was on the challenges and opportunities of communicating authentically and effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia.

Letitia explained how the pace, tone and cadence of a conversation really matters:

‘I was always taught, two ears, one mouth and use them in that order. Listen first, talk later.

And that can often happen across community, I mean, there’s no stereotype, but it can often happen where people will be slow to respond and they’ll be… really listening deeply to what’s being said and reflecting, thinking that through, and then come back with something later.’

Letitia also recommended that public servants engaging with communities be forward-leaning and reflect on three questions: Why are you there? What’s your outcome? Who do you need to talk to?.

‘Making sure that people understand what you’re saying, using language that means something to them, rather than to you, I think are all really important communication cues, no what environment you’re talking in.’

Ray spoke about the importance of understanding the demography of the audience you are wanting to communicate with.

‘Eighty percent of Indigenous Australians live in the South-East corner, predominantly Western Sydney and Brisbane…

Fifty percent of that 800,000 people are under 25. So you’ve got some cultural history about valuing what Elders say — nearly fifty percent of the population is under 25, what does that mean for your communications?

So understanding the demography I think, particularly as a non-Indigenous person, is really important. And I think those numbers surprise a lot of people, because a lot of our focus tends to be drawn to remote and very remote communities — which is very important — but when you’re trying to reach large numbers of people, you’ve got to think about that.’

Ray went on to say:

‘I think the trick here is… you don’t have to go to bespoke channels all the time. There are mainstream channels that can reach very large numbers of Indigenous Australians.

But the trick is, how do you use those channels, and still engage authentically with them?

And I think one of the biggest things to remember — and I’ll try not to have a deficit discussion here — but there is a deep distrust of governments, all levels, in Indigenous Australia. So if you’re about to go out and — anywhere in the public sector — and try and communicate either a new policy or even just to consult, you need to understand that there is that distrust…

…You need to approach any engagement with a great deal of humility, particularly as a non-Indigenous bureaucrat. If you don’t, things are not going to go well. You do need to listen, you do need to be comfortable with silence.’

Justine said it was important for public servants to pull back from jumping to solutions:

‘Say, “No, I’m going to wait. I’m going to wait it out. I’m going to listen.”

Because at the end we want the best outcome. And you’re not going to get that best outcome if you provide a solution upfront without actually doing that proper consultation, listening, understanding and… working with these communities, and working with these people, for the best outcome.

That’s my advice… don’t focus on the immediate solution, focus on the outcome. And if you want it to work, you need to give it that time and patience — particularly I think with the Indigenous audiences, because it hasn’t happened a lot in the past.’

The conversation also touched on the need for ‘consulting’ to actually be a genuine discussion, for ‘co-design’ to be a genuine partnership, and the importance of delivering on what you promise.

WORK WITH PURPOSE is produced in partnership between contentgroup and IPAA ACT, with the support of the Australian Public Service Commission.

The podcast can be accessed from the link below and is also available on Spotify, SoundCloud and iTunes.

Work with Purpose

Episode #42: Respecting Indigenous Communications